Monday, July 02, 2012

Happy Birthday Dad

My father would have been 86 today. Sometimes I wish that I could magic him back to life, if only for a day, but I also know that within ten minutes he'd be telling me an anecdote about his scouting holidays and not listening to what I was saying.

If I asked him what the afterlife was like, he'd probably tell me about a chap he'd met who knew Lofty Woods, who was stationed at the same RAF base as Bill Kent and suddenly we'd be back to the frustrating conversations we had when, as a teenager, I tried to get my father to talk about his feelings.

But my father came from a different age, when talking about emotions was regarded as effeminate or weak. You just put the lid on and got on with things. Perhaps this attitude became more widespread during and after the First World War, when the phrase 'unspeakable horror' became more than a figure of speech.

His parents were both working class and when my father left school at 14, he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in a factory. But then the War came and with it, National Service. My father joined the RAF and spent two years working as an electrician, servicing and repairing Lancaster bombers.

After he was demobbed, everybody expected my father to return to his old job in the local factory, but he had other ideas. Instead, he went to night school and studied for the Civil Service Entrance Exam.

He passed the exam and joined the National Savings Bank as a clerical assistant. It was a poorly-paid job, but my father regarded it as a step up the social ladder and during the 1950s, he sought to acquire the trappings of a gentleman. Sometimes he didn't get it quite right:

I remember cringing with embarrassment as a child when my father appeared in ordinary social situations wearing a bow tie. Other children's dads dressed casually and drove modern cars. My father drove a 1960s Morris Oxford and wouldn't be seen dead without a tie. He even shaved twice a day.

With four decades between us, many people assumed that he was my grandfather. His 1930s childhood was very different from mine.

As part of his social ascent, my father joined the Young Conservatives and remained a diehard Tory for the rest of his life. Sometimes he felt that they were a little too left-wing and was very relieved when Margaret Thatcher got into power.

During my teens I had a very difficult relationship with my father and every meal turned into a blazing row. We disagreed about everything. Politically I regarded myself as fairly moderate, but in my father's eyes I was a militant socialist. When I started listening to classical music my father was delighted, but the moment I started to play "that flippin' modern rubbish" we clashed.

In hindsight, he was a man in his mid-50s who was frustrated by so many things, not least his job. After years of drudgery his career was really taking off and he had been offered one of the higher posts in the Civil Service, but was losing his sight. It had been a gradual process and both my mother and I had grown used to telling him what colour the traffic lights were when he drove, not facing the reality of his blindness. When my father agreed to take early retirement, it must have been a very difficult decision to make.

I was a classic example of "Be careful what you wish for". My father wanted a middle class child, but made the mistake of thinking that it would result in a Hay Wain-loving, Conservative-voting clone. Instead, he had an intolerant, opinionated prig who ridiculed his views.

Luckily we both grew up and when we stopped feeling threatened by each other, we rediscovered the love that had always been there. I learned to see my father in the context of his background and realised what a remarkable journey he'd made.

I can't speak for my father, but I hope he saw that I possessed the same sense of moral conviction that drove him. We may have ended up holding opposing views, but we held them for the right reasons and both despised people who were motivated by self-aggrandisement.

As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the best things about my father. The flip side of his bigotry was a moral courage and sense of conviction that didn't waver under pressure. His love was never conditional and he was incredibly loyal to people.

The bigotry was frustrating, but if I bought home friends who didn't conform to my father's ideas of normality, he still was unfailingly polite. I remember him cornering one friend, who was black and dressed in outrageously foppish clothes, trying to convince him to join the Civil Service.

Today, I judge my father by his actions, not his views. He could be maddening to talk to, but in spite of everything he said, he was one of the kindest people I've known. When he died, I asked people to send donations to Sightsavers rather than waste their money on flowers. In less than two weeks, we had raised enough money for over 50 cataract operations. The funeral was packed.

My father almost died in 1994. His last eleven years were spent living a diminished life, limited to short journeys that made him feel terrible. But when my oldest son was born, he found a new reason to live.

As I descend deeper into fatherhood and hear myself uttering the same banal cliches that my father did, tutting at the vacuous children's television presenters and complaining about declining standards, I feel a growing sense of humility.

I am my father, but possibly not as good.


Little Nell said...

Thank you for this very enjoyable 'voyage around your father'.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Wonderful, Steerforth, and wonderful to have resolved issues.

Kid said...

Have you ever read the two-part Superman story from the '80s, entitled "The Miraculous Return of Jonathan Kent"? Clark Kent's father is allowed to see how his son turned out as an adult by being granted 30 hours in his boy's future. (Superman had a different continuity back then.) Without referring to the actual story, I'm unsure if he's ressurected from the dead for the purpose or merely transplanted in time while still alive, but the ending is rather nice.

I think you'd enjoy it.

Martin said...

The most important thing in all of this is, you received unconditional love from your dad. It doesn't get better than that. Along with Little Nell, I'd like to say thanks for sharing this touching and honest account of your relationship.

Rog said...

I've got similar pics of kids playing on the beach at Southend and men sitting in deckchairs with shirt and ties.
That Savings Bank building is amazing - I've been round the V&A Archives there.

Séamas Poncán said...

"As I descend deeper into fatherhood..." Never thought of it that way... :-)
It's amazing how our parents keep getting smarter as we get older - even after they're gone. It also strikes me now that although I always thought they knew all the answers and could handle anything, they were winging it just like I am!

Canadian Chickadee said...

A beautiful piece, Steerforth.

I shared a similar experience. My father was quite a conservative man, and a great believer in higher education. He insisted that I finish at university, even when it was a financial hardship for him to keep me there. I think he expected me to come back a conservative Republican and lifelong NRA member, just as he was.

However, I attended uni just after JFK was assassinated, and instead of becoming a conservative, I became a liberal. What the pundits here in the USA refer to as a "Blue dog Democrat."

Which is strange, because I live my life in quite a conservative way, but I have some very liberal ideas, which puzzled my father greatly.

He died of complications of Alzheimer's in 1999. I don't think he ever figured out where he went "wrong" to produce such a strange offspring.

We didn't hit it off at all once I hit the age of 21. Part of it was my fault -- one of the more unfortunate things I inherited from my father was his stubborness, and a quickness to judge. Failings I will probably spend my life trying to overcome.

But as one friend is fond of saying, "it is what it is," and we made our peace eventually. Thirteen years later, I still miss and wish I could talk to him.

Andi's English Attic said...

Great photos but that last one is absolutely brilliant.

Tororo said...

It's been a couple years since I bookmarked your blog, and I have been reading it since then without commenting. Today's post had such a deep resonance with my own feelings, I felt it was a good place for leaving a first comment. There are so many things I can relate to in this post that I don't know what to start with… Perhaps the last sentence sums it up: "I am my father, but possibly not as good"…
Thanks for your blog!

Janis Goodmanw said...

I enjoyed reading this post greatly - made me think about my father who would have been 92 in a week's time - particularly loved the last photograph. Many thanks for your blog.

Steerforth said...

Thank you all for the kind words - I had a moment of doubt after posting this, so I'm glad that it struck a chord, Nell (I almost called it 'A Voyage...') and Gardener.

Kid - No, I haven't read that story. I used to be strictly Marvel I'm afraid, although I have much broader tastes these days. I'll look out for it.

Martin - That's the one big lesson I've learned - unconditional love. It's become a mantra.

Rog - Is that the Savings Bank in Kew or Barons Court you're referring to?

Séamus - I've realised that my children want me to pretend I know the answers, even though they'll shoot me down in flames when they're teenagers. You can't win!

Carol - I'm glad that you both made your peace in the end. There comes a point when both the parent and child accept that they'll never change each other and if they're wise enough, they learn to see beyond the differences. Like you, I lead a rather conservative life and I think that my dad saw that whatever views I expressed, I was still 'respectable'!

Andi - Thanks. The last picture was taken by my mother, who is normally the worst photographer in the world (during a holiday in Devon, she took an entire cine film of her left eye). But when my 18-month-old son picked up a stick and imitated his grandfather, she saw a photo opportunity.

Tororo - Thanks for taking the plunge and commenting! I never know who reads this blog, so it's nice to see some new names today.

Janis - Thanks. The odd thing about these days is that so many people are living into their 90s, that we feel cheated if they're not still around. My father died at 79 - a good age, but it feels young these days.

zmkc said...

Such a wonderful post.

Steerforth said...

Thank you.